Continental capers from Scandinavia to the Med
The name Jung Jo-Gook is enough to cause Didier Deschamps a sleepless night or two.
When he closes his eyes, the Marseille coach can still picture the scene clearly. It's the 77th minute on a hot summer's afternoon. His team are 1-0 up at home to relegation-threatened Auxerre.
With less than a month of the season remaining, the holders have finally overtaken Lille at the top of Ligue 1. It seems another double is on the cards. The long march to a second consecutive championship crown is almost complete.
Then an angled long ball played from the defence falls between Marseille's centre-backs and sits up for Jo-Gook. The onrushing Steve Mandanda makes himself big, and jumps in front of his opponent. But the Auxerre striker retains his composure and nudges the ball underneath the goalkeeper and into an empty net. How apt that the player South Koreans call the 'Patriot' due to his missile-like shooting abilities, should be the one to shoot down Marseille's title challenge.
Down but not out, a born winner like Deschamps soon set about analysing what went wrong, conducting a post-mortem on Marseille’s disappointing league campaign.
He immediately identified the club's handling of transfers last summer, and in particular the situation created when Hatem Ben Arfa was put on the market then sensationally taken off it after Mamadou Niang, Marseille's captain and Ligue 1's top scorer, left it late to reveal his desire to leave in search of a new challenge.
The carpet was pulled right from under Deschamps. With the season already started, his plans were torn to shreds. He unexpectedly lost both players and with little time to react, had to accept replacements that weren't necessarily what he had in mind.
Ben Arfa and Niang in 'happier' times...
On the opening day, Marseille lost 2-1 to newly promoted Caen at the Stade Vélodrome and then suffered a 3-2 defeat to Valenciennes a week later.
"Last year, what happened with 'Mamad' and Hatem had consequences on the life of the group," Deschamps told L'Équipe.
Inconveniently, he was blindsided again in March when Brandao, the club's hefty target man, was held for questioning over an alleged sexual assault. It was decided that he should be loaned to Cruzeiro, hampering Deschamps' efforts yet again.
At one point he bitterly noted that the one area in which Marseille had improved last season was in their ability to add inches to France's gossip columns.
It was clear that someone would have to pay. And so it came to pass that, in circumstances similar to those in which José Mourinho has strengthened his position at Real Madrid, the club's president Jean-Claude Dassier was ousted and replaced with Vincent Labrune, a candidate favourable to Deschamps.
Rewarded with a contract extension until 2014 and the new job title of 'general manager', Deschamps won a small but significant power struggle within the club, adding a key ally in the boardroom to counter the influence of Marseille’s director of sport José Anigo in competing for the ear of owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus.
“Vincent is on the same wavelength,” Deschamps smiled. The mistakes made last year were corrected. This time, Marseille did their shopping early and on the cheap, spending €11 million on five new players, a stark contrast to the €130 million the club invested in the squad over the previous three seasons.
The defence that had cost Marseille dear by shipping 10 goals in the team’s final six league games of the 2010/11 campaign was reinforced with the arrivals of Lorient left-back Jérémy Morel and Monaco centre-back Nicolas Nkoulou.
Dressing room leader Gabi Heinze was replaced by Deschamps’ long term transfer target Alou Diarra, the Bordeaux midfielder and frequent France captain, whose armband is on rotation under Laurent Blanc.
Alou Diarra had long been in Didier Deschamps' sights
Meanwhile, any fears that the uncertainty surrounding the future of Lucho González would weigh on the squad’s mind as in the case of Niang or that his prospective late departure would leave Marseille short in terms of creativity were nipped in the bud by Labrune with the signing of Morgan Amalfitano, another recruit from Lorient with 11 assists in Ligue 1 last season.
All were brought in before Marseille’s two summer training camps. All had time to understand Deschamps’ methods and get to know their new team-mates.
"The transfer market is 60% of the season," Labrune claimed. "We have a solid squad. Our recruits arrived very early and 99.9% of the players signed were the ones Didier wanted, versatile players who are hungry. It has contributed to a good atmosphere."
As the fans and the media got caught up in the hype surrounding Paris Saint-Germain and the club’s extravagant spending under their new Qatari owners, Marseille enjoyed the favour of French football’s coaches with 42.5% naming them favourites for the title in a poll conducted by L’Équipe.
Enthusiasm for Deschamps’ side only grew after the Champions Trophy, in which Marseille showed the character to come back from 2-0 down then 3-1 down to beat Lille 5-4 in the 95th minute and lift their fifth trophy under his reign in Tangiers.
André Ayew scored a hat-trick. His brother Jordan won two penalties. Lucho even rediscovered his best form, laying on two assists. The signs were encouraging.
“It was a beautiful advert for French football,” Deschamps said - not to mention excellent for morale ahead of the new campaign.
So as Marseille stood on the starting blocks in Ligue 1 the last thing they wanted to hear after the gun was a beep indicating a false start.
Marseille's start has given Deschamps plenty to chew over
“We all have in mind our start to last season,” revealed Benoît Cheyrou. “We must be more concentrated. We chased after points all last season.”
But the beginning already looks like it could be the end for Marseille, even if it is still early days. Without a win from their first three games of the campaign there was naturally talk of a crisis as Deschamps and his side caught the plane north to face champions Lille on Sunday.
“Why should we be alarmed?” asked a defiant Alou Diarra. “We haven’t won, but we haven’t lost either. The Champions Trophy is in our cabinet. Of course, we can and must do better, but let’s wait until the end of the season before passing judgement.”
Unfortunately, the inquest has already begun. Marseille’s new fitness coach Antonio Pintus, hired on Deschamps’ personal recommendation, has taken a share of the blame for inadequately preparing the players. But the buck doesn’t stop there.
Marseille’s defence has continued to leak goals. Injuries such as the fractured metatarsal suffered by Stephane Mbia and a discernible lack of form have meant they have thus far been unable to field the same backline in consecutive matches. Yet the team selections and substitutions Deschamps has made haven’t exactly helped Marseille either.
Come Sunday, their trip to Lille was dubbed a ‘must-win’ game by the French media and the tension was palpable. Luckily for the neutral a fixture that has averaged nearly five goals in each of the last five encounters between these two sides didn’t disappoint.
Last season’s top scorer in Ligue 1 Moussa Sow opened his account for the season after 15 minutes. He slid in and beat Mandanda to a cross from Franck Béria to give Lille the lead. Mathieu Valbuena then equalised for Marseille before the hour mark when his speculative shot from 35 yards out took a deflection off Aurélien Chedjou and flew over Mickaël Landreau in the Lille goal.
The pint-sized France international doubled the away side’s advantage five minutes later, latching on to a rebound from a free-kick which he smashed with such venom that Landreau, standing shell-shocked on his line, nearly ended up in the net with it.
The outcome of the match hinged, however, on what happened next. Lille restored parity when summer signing Dimitri Payet pulled a pass back across goal for Chedjou to sweep under a despairing Mandanda. The response from Deschamps raised eyebrows. He hauled off, Valbuena, the team’s most dangerous player, and threw on André-Pierre Gignac, perhaps their least effective striker last season.
As if Marseille hadn’t shot themselves in the foot already, they did so again when Rod Fanni brought down Eden Hazard in the penalty area after 75 minutes. Referee Clément Turpin pointed to the spot and Sow notched his second of the night to ensure Lille won 3-2, giving their title defence some real momentum.
“It’s a huge disappointment,” Deschamps admitted. “Evidently it hurts.”
Although the international break couldn’t have come at a better time for Marseille, there is little to indicate that the pain stops now. When Ligue 1 returns in September, Deschamps’ side host Rennes then travel to Olympiacos and Lyon.
Hovering precariously above the relegation zone, the only crumb of comfort comes from the annals of Marseille’s history. Twenty-three years ago, OM started in exactly the same fashion, collecting three points from their first four games.
After sacking Gérard Banide and failing in his effort to hire Michel Hidalgo, Marseille’s owner Bernard Tapie settled on the understated Gérard Gili. It was under his calming influence that OM, backed by the goals of Jean-Pierre Papin, went on to win the first league title of the Tapie era.
Deschamps joined the club from Nantes the following season. Right now, it might be worth picking up the phone and giving Gili a call.
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